When it comes to product photography, light is the key ingredient. Without it, your images will be flat and uninspiring. Whether you are using natural light or artificial lighting, there are a number of ways to shape that light in order to create attractive photos with professional-quality results.
Think of the eye-catching product photos you come across when surfing the internet, flicking through a magazine, or those you spot on large billboards. To get these amazing photos, a photographer needs to play with light using photography light modifiers.
Essential light modifiers for commercial product photography include strip boxes, scrims, snoots, barn doors, and color gels. These are essential tools that control or alter light, where some modifiers soften the light, some harden it, and some make it a little more creative.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the most essential light modifiers for taking great product shots!
Soft Light Modifiers
As the name suggests, soft light modifiers work to soften the light from flashes and strobes by spreading it out or diffusing it over a larger surface, essentially broadening the beam.
Generally, soft light modifiers come in handy when a photographer wants to reduce or soften the shadows in an image—softer light results in softer shadows which give a flattering look to your product.
The common modifiers under this category are umbrellas, softboxes, and scrims, which all have a few subtle differences in their yielded light contrast.
Here are a few kits we recommend:
|Westcott 2005 45-Inch Optical White Satin Umbrella||Amazon|
|Godox 9"x 35" 22x90cm Honeycomb Grid Strip Softbox||Amazon|
|Light Reflector 5-in-1 Collapsible Multi-Disc with Bag||Amazon|
|Impact Folding Beauty Dish (40")||Amazon|
|S-Type Flash Bracket Holder and Conical Snoot Kit||Amazon|
|Barn Door & Honeycomb Grid||Amazon|
|7" Standard Reflector Diffuser Lamp Shade Dish with 10° /30°/ 50° Degree Honeycomb Grid||Amazon|
|Wellmaking Bowens Mount Gobo||Amazon|
|16 Pack Color Correction Gel Light Filter||Amazon|
A photography umbrella is the first light modifying tool that most new photographers use because it’s affordable, easy to use, and easy to carry around. Generally, these umbrellas create a light that’s abundant, soft, and very forgiving by spreading it over a large surface.
However, photography umbrellas offer the least amount of control over your light are not the ideal choice for product photography unless you want to light up a large area.
They are best suited for indoor lighting when working alone. When using them outdoors, there’s a risk of the lights being blown over if the weather isn’t favorable enough, and you may need someone to hold them in place or secure them using sandbags.
Popular photography umbrellas available in the market today are diffusion, reflective and convertible umbrellas:
- Diffusion umbrellas, also called shoot-through umbrellas,are the most common. They are placed between the light source and the product and apply the diffusion principle to produce softer light. The light from a flash or strobe diffuses through the umbrella’s fabric onto the product.
- Reflective umbrellas feature silver, gold, or white inner fabric to increase reflection efficiency and create different end product moods. These umbrellas apply the reflection principle. The umbrella is placed opposite the product so the light hits the fabric and reflects onto the product.
- Convertible umbrellas carry both diffusion and reflective umbrellas in one package. They come as white umbrellas with a removable black cover to transform the umbrella from diffusion to reflective.
Typically, the larger the umbrella, the softer the light. But keep in mind, if you get one too big, you may lose too much light.
The shape of the umbrella also matters. A deeper umbrella creates a tight beam of light, stronger at the center, while a shallow umbrella makes a more dispersed beam of light that has a feathered look at the edges.
Softboxes are another popular set of soft light modifiers in the commercial product photography field. These low-cost, versatile modifiers create a beautiful soft light that is easily controlled.
They work the same way as umbrellas, but their closed sides ensure light only diffuses through the front opening.
With softboxes, the light goes through a white fabric diffusion panel that softens it and spreads it out. Most softboxes come with an extra layer of diffusion fabric on the inside to create a softer light.
A notable benefit of these boxes is they offer more control over the diffused light, allowing you to choose the ideal shape of the light depending on the subject.
These boxes come in different sizes, and the larger the box, the softer the light. However, most photographers consider an ideal softbox below 4 feet (122cm), at least 2 feet (61 cm).
Softboxes also come in different shapes, such as squares, octabox, strips, and elongated rectangles. Differently shaped models create different shapes of soft light and catchlights in portraits. For example, octagonal softboxes create beautiful round-shaped catchlights on the eyes that yield a natural look.
For product photography, our recommendation is the strip box, as it offers the most versatility when shaping your light on reflective products.
Umbrellas and softboxes are mainly used with artificial lights. However, scrims are large enough for when working with natural light.
A scrim is a large piece of white diffusion fabric stretched over a frame, creating a giant panel.
And the larger the light source, the softer the light; therefore, scrims can create very soft light. These soft light modifiers are ideal for creating large areas of soft light that mimic shooting next to a large window.
Depending on your location, and the shoot you want to capture, you can place your light source behind the scrim or use it to create a customized shade on a sunny day.
The secret behind getting the most out of scrims is getting them into the right position, and using your strip boxes to create a gradient of light.
Depending on the size, some scrims can work perfectly on stands, while the giant ones need extra hands (assistants) for support.
Scrims can open up many possibilities in the world of photography; From creating soft light to shades, they are among the most versatile light modifiers. And our favorite diffusion material we like to use is Savage Translum (Heavy).
Hard and Directional Light Modifiers
Hard and directional light modifiers give a photographer more control over where the light falls mainly by creating a narrower light beam. These modifiers produce light with a limited spread, hard light.
Light from a limited light source creates deeper and dramatic shadows with more pronounced edges. They are effective in giving a product an edgy and dramatic look.
Generally, hard light modifiers create abrupt light and shadow transitions, and help you control the areas where you don’t want light to hit.
Modifiers of these types include beauty dishes, barn doors, snoots, grids, and flags:
A beauty dish comes as a simple, shallow dish attached to a light source to yield hard light on the product with an extreme drop-off. Its effect on a product creates deeper shadows. They also make beautiful circular catchlights or eye lights.
Beauty dishes are efficient at controlling where the light hits. Due to this, they’re mainly used for fashion photography, especially head and shoulder portraits that aim to highlight hair and makeup.
They are perfect for lighting faces to define bone structures such as chin lines and cheekbones – though you can certainly use them for other product shoots.
Although beauty dishes make models look great by flattening their features, a photographer needs to light their model in a very specific way, from above because these modifiers have a rapid fall off from light to dark, thus creating unwanted shadows in the end product.
A snoot is a tube-like light modifying gadget that mounts on a strobe or studio light. It works to focus or narrow the light source down and point it in a specific direction. It is one of the most effective directional light modifiers that condense the light source to the spotlight.
Snoots are designed to fit into specific lights; therefore, your choice of a snoot depends on the lights you are using. Generally, they work the same way as softboxes, but snoots narrow the light source a bit further and create light with a very minimal spread yielding hard light.
These modifiers come in handy when a photographer wants to highlight specific details of the subject, such as the brand label or logo, or when they want to mimic flashlight or spotlight effects.
They’re great for indoor and outdoor photography and best for accentuating specific details of the product.
Barn doors are common light modifiers that come as four metal flaps attached by hinges that you attach to a light source. The doors are adjustable, allowing you to control and shape the direction and spread of the light depending on your photography needs.
Barn doors are mainly directional modifiers that control the shape and direction of light. They control light from spilling into places you don’t want it without affecting its quality, i.e., soft or hard light.
They come in a wide range of sizes designed to fit different lights. Therefore, when buying a set of barn doors, ensure that you select one that comes with appropriate fittings for your light mounts.
Customization possibilities are numerous with barn doors. For example, if all the doors are tightly closed, a very narrow light beam is created, similar to that of a snoot but without a spotlight effect. Open one or two doors to create a slightly wider beam. You can even set the metal flap doors to create a shaft light mimicking light falling through a half-open door.
A grid is a light modifier placed in front of a light source to give you control over the quantity of light that spills over to the coverage area.
For instance, you may use a grid in portraits to keep the light from wrapping around the face. They are effective in directing light from a wider beam into a specific spot in the subject.
Generally, a grid comes in the form of a honeycomb or an egg crate pattern and seeks to regulate the spread of light, creating a tighter beam. Grids are effective in controlling the light falloff and help keep light off the ground.
Grids come in a variety of sizes too, measured in degrees. The size or degree of a grid determines how far the light spills off. For instance, a 10 grid offers a narrow light beam, with very little light spills into the shadows.
On the other hand, a 40 grid causes more light spillage into the shadows. Therefore, as the grid’s degree increases, the light coverage in the shadow also increases.
Most product photographers who don’t want to brighten up the whole subject use grids to control the light spillage in the end product. Grids do well with other modifiers, mainly softboxes.
In fact, a good number of newer softbox models come with a grid in their packages.
Flags are used to block or cut light from a part of your subject or scene where it’s not wanted.
It’s like closing a curtain to block glare from a TV screen. Flags come in different sizes and materials such as solid, net, and silk. The most popular ones are solid and net (also called fingers and dots).
Solid flags block light completely.
They come in handy if you need to completely cut out light from a section of your product photo while directing it to a particular spot. They can also be used to prevent flares or create negative fills.
On the other hand, the net flags can be either single or double and don’t block the light entirely. They are used to block or “eat up light” for a pesky spot in a product without blocking all the light.
If you get a silk flag in white, it can double as a scrim because it’ll diffuse the light rather than block it.
You can use these tools independently or with other light modifiers. For example, a flag can be placed over a square softbox to create a strip softbox. A little creativity with the positioning of flags over other light modifiers, opens room for more lighting opportunities.
Creative Light Modifiers
Commercial product photography light modification isn’t all about the light direction, diffusion, and reflection. Sometimes, it needs a little something “extra” to set the scene up for the right mood.
And that’s where creative light modifiers are handy.
Creativity in product photography can positively impact the way shoppers view your products by making them more eye-catching, unique and authentic. Creative light modifiers allow for interesting lighting effects that create a mood or certain dramatic effects that you may want to portray for your brand.
Creative light modifiers include gobos, patterns, and gels:
Gobos and Patterns
Gobos and pattern light modifiers are objects you place in front or inside a light source to control or alter the emitted light’s shape, pattern, and shadows. They create a patterned light using artificial light that adds a touch of beauty and creativity to the product photos.
These creative light modifiers allow for unlimited creativity. For example, you can place a leaf or branch between your light source and the product to create shadows of leaves to mock sunlight passing through a nearby tree. You can also create cut-outs in different patterns to personalize the patterns on your products.
A little play with colors can transform a ‘boring’ or plain image into an eye-catching one. Color gels add visual interests in product photos within just a few tweaks in your photoshoot setup.
These gels come in the form of plastic sheets that you can easily mount on your studio lights or strobes to alter the lighting color. For example, if you are shooting indoors and want to mimic the sunset vibe, you can use matching color gels to warm up your lighting.
Gels can be used with other modifiers such as grids, where they make a specific color effect in a defined area without causing an uncontrolled color cast all over the image.
Factors To Consider When Choosing Light Modifiers
Before picking a certain light modifier over the others, first consider the quality of light you want to use.
Different light modifiers affect the quality of light differently. Some broaden the light beam to create a softer lighter while others narrow the beam creating a hard light.
Soft light isn’t harsh on a product; it resembles the one produced by the early morning sun, an open shade, overcast skies, or twilight. Soft light softens the shadows and produces flattering images. If this is the kind of light you want for your commercial photos, you can use photography umbrellas, scrims, or softboxes.
On the other hand, if you want hard light like that of the sun on a cloudless day, go for hard light modifiers such as beauty dishes, barn doors, and snoots. Hard light yields sharp shadows with dramatic effects.
If you want a light with a touch of creativity, go for creative modifiers like color gels, gobos, and patterns.
- Secondly, consider your desired mood. Soft light creates ethereal, beautiful photos, while hard light gives more dramatic photos.
- Thirdly, consider your type of lighting. Some light modifiers such as snoots and barn doors are designed to fit into specific lights. Therefore, ensure you settle for one that offers a perfect fit for your light.
- And lastly, consider your experience. Some light modifiers such as beauty dishes, flags, and color gels require perfect positioning to produce desired effects. As a result, they aren’t the best for beginners or amateur product photographers.
Therefore, if you don’t have sufficient experience in photography, consider going for modifiers such as softboxes, umbrellas, and scrims since they are quite easy to use.
There are a handful of soft, hard, directional, and creative light modifiers to choose from, which can seem overwhelming.
However, once you start to experiment with these modifiers, you’ll watch your commercial product photography take a new turn for the better.
Say goodbye to plain and ‘boring’ photos and give your shoots a twisted aspect of ambient color, mood, and creativity using the right light modifiers.